My dinky 25 kilogram lurcher, Beanie, isn’t the kind of dog you can physically maneuvre. If you’re lucky, the least you’d get is that distinctive Lurcher Scream of Death. The worst you’d get is bitten.
Now imagine standing on a field, amidst at least twenty dogs and their owners happily enjoying their evening walk, with Beanie’s blood-curling screams piercing the air every time he tried to put his hind paw down on the ground after an otherwise routine romp in the woods. Imagine my panic and embarrassment as a new dog owner for not having any way of getting close to my dog’s paw to even figure out what’s wrong. The car was at least 200 metres away. We weren’t going anywhere anytime soon. Lucky for us, a dog walker came to our rescue and swiftly pulled out the pine needle in his paw after strategically muzzling him using his lead.
That is the moment I realised the importance of husbandry training.
What is husbandry training?
Husbandry is an umbrella term that covers all manner of care and maintenance that our animals need from us to lead a happy and healthy life. It covers everything from clipping a house collar around their neck to performing a blood draw at the vets.
Brushing, grooming, dental and nail care, removing thorns and ticks, administering bitter tablets and painful ear drops, bathing after an extravagant roll in fox poo and cleaning a wound after a hairy mud slide are all examples of husbandry procedures that we do almost every day as guardians of our companion animals who live wonderfully rich lives in the real world.
Husbandry also includes procedures specific to a veterinary clinic such tactile physical examinations, rectal temperature measurements, heart and lung measurements, capillary refill tests, nasal vaccinations, ear exams using an otoscope, injections and blood draws. Some of these procedures must be done by a veterinarian. Some might also need a veterinary nurse to assist.
It has been commonly accepted that vet visits are scary for our animals. There is no doubt that unpleasant things happen in a clinic. Confusion, loss of control, unfamiliarity with the environment and staff, proximity to other patients, odours or sounds characteristic of fear and memories of pain from previous experience are some of the biggest reasons why our animals find vets downright petrifying.
But it doesn’t have to be that way.
A dog doesn’t have to “put up” with the groomer or hide at the sight of ear drops. A vet isn’t necessarily a scary human. A previously biting, snarling dog can absolutely learn to run into a clinic with a tail wagging fast and high, looking forward to his next procedure with the vet.
The way to achieve that tremendous mind-blowing transformation is through husbandry training.
Teaching our animals to be willing participants in their care through thoughtful changes and structured, ethical training methods is one of the biggest gifts we can give to the animals in our life.
What’s wrong with quick and painless?
Many years ago, I was advised by my vet to apply a dot of sunscreen on both of my white-coated cats’ ears during the summer as they spend a lot of time in direct sunshine to reduce the risk of skin cancer on the ears. I followed this advice dutifully for many months. At first, it only took a second. I was done before my girl cat, Oonsipie, even took notice. Or so I thought. Over the following days, she started backing away when I brought out the sunscreen bottle every morning. So I lured her with her kryptonite — food. Then she stopped eating in the mornings. Within a month, she began avoiding me entirely around breakfast. We found ourselves in this war of increasing escalation of force and avoidance, with me insisting that she tolerate sticky, smelly ears for the greater good and her insisting that there was no way in hell that she would let me.
I was glad when that summer was over because I could finally stop this ordeal. It had taken a toll on our relationship. When the next summer came around, I simply stopped applying sunscreen altogether. Her behaviour and mistrust of me were sufficiently high barriers for me to stop following veterinary advice. I found myself balancing her emotional wellbeing against her physical wellbeing.
I know for a fact that I am not the only owner who has been in this position. Something that was once mildly annoying to the dog but quickly over and done with eventually becomes such a big deal all around that we hesitate to give due veterinary care for fear of the fallout or escalation. We land one ear drop but the dosage on the bottle says three. We dread the second and third drops. We tell ourselves it’s enough if they land on the outside of the ear or give up on them entirely.
Quick and painless comes at the cost of a relationship and future healthcare. But we can turn that around and build a relationship that indeed enablesbetter healthcare instead of hampering it.
Choice, communication and predictability
The three cornerstones of husbandry training are as follows:
- Giving the animal the ability to consent and control the pace of the procedure
- Embedding predictability by teaching the animal a spectrum of husbandry procedures
- Having a framework for communication of choice and predictability
Let’s now look at each of these pillars in turn.
1. Giving the animal the ability to consent and control the pace of the procedure
Having never had an MRI before, the simple act of the radiologist giving me a button to press in advance if I wanted the procedure to stop made me feel infinitely better about being confined in a coffin-like tube listening to the most disconcerting concert in my life for half an hour. I said yes because I could also say no. I knew that the radiologist would listen either way.
As unintuitive as it may seem, allowing an animal to walk away is more likely to encourage them to return in the future. Your dog can choose to pause a procedure, take in and evaluate a new stimulus, opt back in and control the pace at which the procedure continues. In conjunction with husbandry training, a meaningful opt out is a crucial component to building their trust in the procedure itself.
Control over the procedure can take many forms. My lurcher would scream if his paws are forcibly lifted off the ground but having now taught him to lift his paws by himself when I touch the corresponding leg, I can now examine or clean his paws whilst he holds it in position for me. He is free to put the paw down on the ground again when he wants, which stops the procedure, and resume when he is ready.
There is a rich discussion to be had around the ethics of if and how we structure the environment to incentivise an opt in, perhaps for another article. Irrespective of how likely a ‘yes’ might be, choice is only really meaningful if a ‘no’ is just as valid an option that we equally accept. In fact, accepting a ‘no’ is far more important to husbandry training than rejoicing over a ‘yes’. Opt ins are precious. Do not offer your dog a choice if there isn’t one because ignoring an opt out devalues any future choices on offer.
2. Embedding predictability by teaching the animal a spectrum of husbandry procedures
Husbandry training is really like trick training. If I have taught my dog to stand between my legs and look up at me to be fed in position, I can extend this to hold the position for a jugular blood draw. A dog who knows how to play dead already has the basic skill required to build into a lateral recumbency for his limbs or belly to be examined by a vet or at home for ticks. As much as there is overlap between trick training and husbandry work, both of those types of training are just the same to the animal!
A key pillar of husbandry training is teaching the dog a set of repertoires that enable a variety of husbandry procedures to be performed with ease. We start really small and we build to the goal for one procedure. Then another. Then another. Until there are a huge spectrum of procedures where the dog knows exactly what is about to happen and has been very comfortable with all of those steps.
For example, I have taught my lurcher that when I say “eyes”, I am about to hold his eyes open and potentially give him an eye drop. Similarly, “teeth” is a cue we use to make it clear to him that I am about to cover his muzzle and lift his lips to examine or touch his teeth or gums. Over multiple sessions, I have taught him to accept his rectal temperature being measured whilst lying down without restraint through a series of smaller steps that approximated towards that goal behaviour over time.
Predictability applies to instruments as well as procedures. Husbandry care often involves tools like a nail file or Dremel, alcohol swabs, stethoscopes, thermometers, gauze and wraps, syringes and otoscopes. Many of these instruments and materials can be ordered cheaply on Amazon, purely for training purposes towards procedures that involve their use. Be careful, though, that some of the instruments are indeed invasive, uncomfortable or even dangerous for frequent use in training. It is best to work with a vet or a vet behaviourist to discuss the procedures you wish to train, agree the exact method that your practitioner will typically use with your animal and have their sign off.
3. Having a framework for communication of choice and predictability
A clear start button behaviour is invaluable in husbandry training and indeed the first step towards establishing very subtle communication between the handler and the animal. You may have already come across the Bucket Game by Chirag Patel (see The Generic Structure to Husbandry Training and Resources sections at the end), chin rests on a towel or a lateral recumbency on a mat, all of which are great examples of typical start buttons used in husbandry work.
The dog offers and maintains a known start button with a huge reinforcement history to cue the handler to start the repetition. If the dog withdraws the start button, the repetition aborts instantly. However, if we have structured the increments at the dog’s pace, the end of the approximation marks the completion of that repetition. We reward at that point and wait for the dog to offer the start button for the next repetition. This framework allows us to incorporate counterconditioning and desensitisation components into essentially an operant protocol, approximating towards the goal husbandry procedure through numerous small increments over multiple sessions.
Bear in mind that start buttons are diverse and can also be stacked. For example, my dog lifting his paw is his start button to cue me to examine the paw pads. On nail care days, I show him the Dremel and he then chooses to sit down on his husbandry towel that is already laid out as his first start button. I might then sit in front of him as usual, turn on the Dremel, place his bowl of dinner to set us up for the bucket game and wait for him to offer a second start button by directly focusing on the bowl, cueing me to proceed to hold and file his nails.
The beauty of the husbandry start button is really evident when the animal wants to opt out. Most dogs have learnt that subtle body language does not stop what we’re doing to them but that escalating to growling, barking or air snapping is a more reliable behaviour to get us to go away. As much as husbandry training is about teaching our animals that handling isn’t to be feared and made to go away, it is also about giving them the ability to communicate their discomfort with substantially lower key behaviours. When the whispers are listened to, there is no need to shout. This puts us in a far safer position including preventing bites and lowers stress levels overall.
Similarly, this framework of communication also enables us as the handler to establish predictable patterns of behaviour for a spectrum of husbandry procedures that we perform in the animal’s personal space without any surprise for them.
Rectal temperature measurements and injections have in the past resulted in my lurcher attempting to bite the veterinary staff out of sheer panic, fearing and fighting for his life. Having worked on husbandry procedures with him at home and at the veterinary clinic, I can now take his temperature at home and the same vet has recently given him an injection in the same clinic for the first time, keeping Beanie entirely comfortable throughout and without so much as a blink from him. He has indeed wanted to opt out during training of both procedures on occasion and instead of automatically resorting to a snap to convince us to stop, all he now has to do is simply look away from his bucket of food for us to listen to him. We are giving him control over the procedure by teaching him that a far more subtle behaviour will indeed achieve the same outcome he wants. In return, we have now taught him through very small steps over a long time that some procedures are really predictable and entirely alright.
Scales of change
The purpose of this section is to demonstrate that husbandry training is not all about executing training plans and implementing protocols. Small changes can already provide a better husbandry experience for our animals. Start as small as you wish by incorporating the following simple ideas whilst those of you who already have these in place can go on even further to create even more incredible transformations from a fearful animal to a willing participant.
At the vet’s:
- Drop in at the vets every so often with your dog’s dinner. Feed him in the parking area, the reception or an exam room… and leave! He does not need to interact with the staff at all.
- Wait with your dog in the car before an appointment and nicely request the reception staff to call you in when the vet is ready.
- When you enter the exam room, give your dog the time to wander off lead (if safe), sniff and take everything in whilst you discuss why you’re there. Giving him the time to make sense of the room at his own pace is important towards him feeling more comfortable in the new environment.
- Split multiple exams over multiple appointments. If a physical exam involves the eyes, ears, teeth/gums and abdomen, break that up into two appointments.
- Book yourself a double appointment to give your dog time to settle in the room first and to take the pressure of time off your and your vet’s shoulders.
- Ask the vet if there is an entrance/exit into the clinic that might avoid other dogs and people, if these are stressful for your dog.
- Less is more — use minimal restraint if there appears to be no need for it.
- Request your vet to examine your dog on the floor if he dislikes being on an exam table at a height. If there is no choice, take a grippy non-slip mat to give your animal stability under their feet.
- If your dog or cat is undergoing ongoing treatment and it is stressful overall, plug in an Adaptil or Feliway diffuser at home in advance and leave on continuously. Test and make sure it has the intended effect before the procedure. Have plenty of enrichment opportunities together to create as much opportunity for decompression as possible and strengthen your relationship as you make it through (check out the Canine Enrichment Facebook group for ideas).
- Split your goals. Not all nails need trimming in one session!
- Teach your dog that wearing a muzzle is awesome. Watch this from Michael Shikashio or this from Chirag Patel on muzzle training.
- Teach your dog that wearing a cone is awesome. See this video from Liam Landywood on teaching a dog to happily wear a cone.
- If your dog needs to wear a cone, use a Comfy Cone instead of a plastic one. Ask your vet if a buster collar would be sufficient for the specific wound as this is generally less stressful for animals to wear.
- Teach your dog to be happy in a crate. This is not the same as scattering some treats in a crate with a bed and closing the door behind the dog so that she cannot leave. Follow this guide to crate training written by Emma Judson (The Canine Consultants) for the Dog Training Advice and Support Facebook group.
The generic structure to husbandry training
Now let’s get into the meaty part of how we would actually teach husbandry routines and how to give our dogs the means to opt in and out from those procedures.
Desensitisation and counterconditioning
If we are lucky, a dog already feels neutral or even excited about a particular procedure. But in most cases, we might only discover husbandry training when we really need it the most — our dog is already showing fearful behaviour and we find ourselves unable to give due physical care. This is especially true for the veterinary environment.
The short summary of the process is as follows. If a dog is afraid of clippers and shows fearful behaviour at the sound of the clippers, we turn the clippers on at the distance when the dog is aware of the sound but not fearful of it (alert but not afraid!) and we reward heavily and continuously. When we turn the clippers off, still staying at the same distance, we also stop feeding. We might take a break and do something else. Then we repeat the same sequence. The scary stimulus, held at the distance where the dog is alert but not afraid, is always followed by food without fail and the termination of the stimulus also terminates the flow of food. The reward can also be toys and play. When the dog looks expectantly for the good stuff at the instant we turn on the clippers, we can bring the clippers a few steps closer. And repeat the whole process again, slowly closing the distance over many sessions until the dog is right in front of us and we are holding the clippers that are switched on.
Operant conditioning is the process of changing an animal’s response to a stimulus by changing the consequences that follow that response. In the context of husbandry training, we first teach the dog that a husbandry mat is a really good place to hang out because it rains food when they step and lie down on it. Then we teach the dog that any stillness will be followed by a reward of something they really value. We then add that resting their chin on a towel will be heavily rewarded. We then add that the dog continuing to rest their chin on the towel as we touch their shoulder will be followed by their reward. This process teaches the dog that doing a certain behaviour in the presence of other changes results in a huge payoff that is worth their while.
Husbandry start button behaviours like the bucket game or the chin rest are examples of operant behaviours through which we can perform careful desensitisation. If a dog ‘breaks’ their stationing behaviour by looking up, it gives us information that the dog might be uncomfortable with whatever has just preceded their behaviour. We abort our repetition and review why the dog may have decided to opt out at that point and how we can make it easier in the next repetition to address that possible reason. We reward the dog for maintaining the stationing behaviour until the end of the repetition. Within a strict operant protocol, we do not reward for the repetition when the dog looks up (there are many other considerations to that but I won’t go into them in this article for the purpose of clarity).
The goal is therefore a dog who maintains a stationing position throughout a repetition. The level of difficulty in that repetition (i.e. the closeness of the clippers to the dog) is carefully designed in a way that desensitisation can take place for that intensity and the dog is just within their comfort level at that repetition. Over time, we step backwards and forwards in difficulty to arrive at the goal of the dog offering and maintaining their stationing position as we clip their fur in short bursts followed by rewards.
The first step to teaching a dog to volunteer for any husbandry procedure is therefore a clean stationing behaviour with duration until a click/marker. This is an excellent tutorial for teaching a calm chin rest, which also applies to a chin rest on a towel. This series (part 1, part 2, part 3) covers the steps to teach the bucket game as well as my video tutorial of the whole process with my lurcher. Beyond the simple yes/no consent that the animal offers, there is a lot of information in the speed with which the dog offers their start button as well as all other body language to show potential conflict the dog is facing but this is for another article!
Describing the goal and breaking it down
So here is how I think about teaching any husbandry behaviour. I picture it in my mind or even write down the steps involved in the goal behaviour, as precisely as possible, for both the dog and the handler. Then I break down that goal into components for dog and handler, some of which can be clearly isolated and worked on independently of others and some which build upon a previous step. The pace at which we progress through those components depends entirely on the dog. I don’t prescribe myself rules about number of repetitions. I keep reminding myself often that it really does take as long as it takes. Rushing the steps is building a house of cards.
I explicitly condition any noises like the click of a muzzle or harness or the beep of an instrument as this can be clearly isolated. Then I build every component one by one, turning a continuous stream of actions into very small and discrete training units with a clearly defined start and end for each unit.
I use a start button behaviour for my dog to be able to give and withdraw consent. I teach the body position required. I work through each of those training units one by one over time and slowly assemble the components together over time to reach the goal behaviour. I plan ahead if the environment in which that procedure will be required and also if it will involve another person. If so, I work on ensuring my dog is excited about those environments as well. This is usually achieved by taking the dog to the environment with their dinner, feeding them their dinner using an activity they really enjoy and just leaving. Over time the dog will rush into that environment to get the party started. This very much applies to changing how our dogs feel about the vets, especially if they have a painful past experience.
Once we have trained the specific procedure at home in a very comfortable environment with a huge positive reinforcement history and lots of successful repetitions, we move to the different locations where the procedure will be required (this is often a vet clinic or sometimes out on walks). If the procedure were to require a second person, I introduce a second person at a distance where the dog is alert but not fearful and slowly close that distance over time, all the while paying close attention to the dog offering their start button behaviour. With the person near but not touching the dog, I then perform the procedure to begin with, bearing in mind that my dog now has a huge reinforcement history of success and lots of predictability with this procedure. Then I transfer that procedure via small approximations to that second person over time as and when my dog is ready to willingly consent to those approximations.
Detail on the best ways that I have found to work with another person on training is also for a future article!
What do I do if I really, really need to do something my dog is not going to like whilst we are still training for it?
Most husbandry procedures we train for are not immediately required and can wait until the dog is ready. This includes nail care, where you could also teach your dog to use a scratchboard to carry you over until you can actually file/clip/Dremel the nails. However, other emergencies absolutely do happen or we might need a veterinary procedure for which the dog is not explicitly trained and we might find ourselves in that icky situation of having to draw more from the trust bank than we have put in so far.
No training goes to waste. So hopefully something novel can still be within the spectrum of repertoires of what your dog can reasonably offer and you do make it through the procedure you need to do by drawing from all those repertoires, even if it’s not entirely comfortable but the dog still offers consent. But in other cases, we might find ourselves really out of our depths, knowing that none of our training has prepared us for that particular emergency.
Here is what I do in those cases.
I perform the procedure in a place that has absolutely no association with the training environment or use another person who will not be involved in our regular husbandry training for that occurrence. I also use objects that look nothing like the item I use in training, e.g. if a dog is petrified of their harness, I might use an entirely different harness to walk them, attach a lead to the collar if that is safe or drive them to areas where they can immediately be off lead. In the case of one-off procedures, I also give the dog a trigger warning that indicates there is no choice in the matter.
Bear in mind, however, that this is likely to set back your training, hence the advice to put off all non-essential husbandry care until the dog is ready for it if at all possible.
Two lies and a truth — the do’s and don’ts of husbandry care
Here are some of the common sense beliefs in handling and why they may seem like they are true but actually they are not.
Your dog behaves better when you are not there
This is such a common comment from professionals who regularly handle dogs. Look up the safe haven effect owners have on dogs, shut down dogs and learned helplessness. Your dog isn’t going to get used to it.
A quieter dog is not a happier dog. Chances are that your dog is not only just as scared, if not more, at having lost your support but is now also nervous about even expressing an opinion. Think about the last time you felt that way.
Taking the fire alarm out of the house does not mean the house is not on fire.
Your dog almost bit the vet but then took a treat afterwards, so all is forgotten
That is not husbandry training. If I am absolutely petrified of flying and I endure a half an hour flight, I might get off that plane and accept a free lollipop outside the landing gate. That doesn’t make me one bit happier about the flight that I have endured, convince me it was going to be OK anyway or make me look forward to the flight back home. Break the steps down as small as possible and work at the dog’s pace through those steps over time. Please do not go through the whole thing and then offer a treat to ‘fix’ it.
Your dog happily goes to the vet clinic for cuddles and fuss but panics when the handling starts
Dogs are fantastic discriminators and context change is very meaningful. It is wonderful to have a dog who runs into a veterinary clinic for a cuddle but doing husbandry training on top, first at home and then at the clinic, will keep that pleasantness throughout!
You give your vet treats to offer your dog to convince your dog to come closer
A far better solution is for you to feed the dog and for the vet to simply stand at the distance where your dog is aware of the vet present but not backing away. It’s like being promised a bonus if you work late every day for the rest of the year. You might do it because you really, really want the extra money but it doesn’t make you like working late. In fact, it puts you in conflict to choose between getting what you like and avoiding what you don’t like. The only thing that is guaranteed is the feeling of relief at backing away from the vet right after every treat and the learning that you fell for a parlour trick.
You don’t want to opt for medication because you don’t want to dope your dog
Medication is not just about sedation. Medication and training can go very much hand in hand and complement each other. A dog who is on the correct medication for his needs can still give and withdraw consent, learn from carefully structured training plans and retain those positive experiences for the next time, therefore growing the investment into their trust bank. This is an excellent topic to bring up with a veterinary behaviourist. Also, listen to Dr. Jennifer Summerfield on FDSA and Debbie Jacobs on Dog Talk with Nick Benger for discussions on this subject.
There are some absolutely fantastic material, resources, Facebook groups and experts on husbandry training out there. There are people making a wave of a difference to their animals’ lives and their own by taking one step at a time over a long period of time.
Make yourself a cup of tea (if you haven’t already!) and work your way through these. Some are specific to cat care, which is a rare topic in itself. Some apply to canine care. Some are places to go to discuss and learn about the methods. Some are pages to follow experts in this field teach and apply husbandry training with their learners. Some are fantastic resources on the importance of choice and how we can incorporate even more choice in our training and daily routines with the wonderful animals with whom we are lucky to share our lives.
Before I list all those places to go from here to continue your journey on husbandry training, I want to thank you for making the time to read this. Do check out and follow my page The Unlikely Tricksters to see videos and discussions around our husbandry work as well as a whole variety of training that I do with Beanie, my two cats and a number of other dogs at my local RSPCA.
Positive Dog Husbandry (Facebook group)
Nail Maintenance for Dogs (Facebook group)
Dog Training Advice and Support(Facebook group)
Cooperative Veterinary Care by Monique Feyrecilde and Alicea Howell (Facebook group)
Cooperative Care: Seven Steps to Stress-Free Husbandry by Deborah Jones (book)
Fenzi Dog Sports Academy Cooperative Canine Care by Deb Jones (online course)
Fear Free Pets (Lots of information on low stress vet visits including courses and certification for pet owners and professionals)
Fear Free Happy Homes (part of Fear Free Pets with free and subscription content)
Space Cat Academy (online courses on cat husbandry)
International Cat Care (website with lots of novice owner-friendly resources, videos and articles on cat care)
The Husbandry Project by The Academy of Dog Trainers
Cutting Your Dog’s Nails — How Important Is It, Really? by Susan Garrett (article and video)
The Bucket Game (Facebook page)
Laura Monaco Torelli — Animal Behaviour Training Concepts (Business Facebook page of Laura Monaco Torelli, training videos here)
Dog Training by Kiki Yablon (Facebook page)
Pawsome Dogs by Michelle Davies (Facebook page)
Dog Charming by Sonya Bevan (Facebook page)
Animals in Control (Joint venture by Peggy Hogan, Eva Bertilsson and Emelie Johnson Vegh)
The Bucket Game by Chirag Patel on the Animal Training Academy
Husbandry Training with Laura Monaco Torelli on Dog Talk with Nick Benger
Real Dogs, Real Training with Laura Monaco Torelli on Drinking from the Toilet
Spreading Animal Training Sparks with Linda Ryan on the Animal Training Academy
“I have the best job in the zoo” with Nicki Boyd, Behaviour Husbandry Manager at San Diego Zoo, on the Animal Training Academy
Train It Before You Need It with Deb Jones on Fenzi Dog Sports Academy
Choice in Dog Training with Sarah Owings on Dog Talk with Nick Benger
Animal Training Flowcharts & Choice/Control with Eva Bertilsson on the Animal Training Academy
Start Button Behaviours with Emelie Johnson Vegh and Eva Bertilsson on Drinking from the Toilet
Behaviour Medications and Training with Dr. Jennifer Summerfield on Fenzi Dog Sports Academy
Helping Fearful Dogs with Debbie Jacobs on Dog Talk with Nick Benger